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What the Church Can Learn from No Man’s Sky

Sep 1, 2016 9:00:00 AM

What the Church Can Learn from No Man’s Sky

Perhaps no game has been more anticipated (and more divisive) in the gaming community than the recent release of No Man’s Sky. Hyped as a nearly infinite universe, it enabled players to explore the breadth of its over 18 quintillion stars, each with its own planets, moons, plants, animals, and ecosystems. The player is cast in the role of a survivor of a starship crash and must repair his or her ship and make a way boldly forth into the unknown. 

It’s a sandbox of exploration, and particularly fascinating as it marks the return of gaming to procedurally generated content on a large scale. Some of the earliest video games made use of procedural generation simply because there were no resources (memory, storage, etc) to store premade content, but in recent decades the efforts have been to create highly tuned, story-driven environments that require a great deal of time to design and build.

No Man’s Sky breaks out of that mold by creating a program to create the universe. It attempts to fill its galaxy with a vast variety of possibilities driven by its procedural algorithms. It almost works. The planets are many and varied, but they ultimately lack diversity and feel very similar. When one potatolike species hopping across a planet looks much the same as another on a different planet, the novelty wears thin quickly.

What the Church Can Learn

So what can we take away from No Man’s Sky’s launch and reception? Sure, it’s just a video game, but are there lessons here for the church? Definitely!

The Future Isn’t (Yet) Now

The single biggest failure in the launch of No Man’s Sky is its failure to live up to its fundamental promises concerning an infinite playable universe. Procedural generation will continue to be a part of the gaming world, but it’s not the immediate future of game development. We’ll see what the future holds, but for now the revolution is delayed.

While it’s tempting, especially for those of us who enjoy technology, to think about the things that are coming soon (adult stem-cell therapies, nanotechnology, etc.) and are poised to revolutionize the ways we live our lives, the reality is still … well, reality. We live right now, in this particular place and time, surrounded by the same broken sinful people we’ve always had. It’s nice to dream of what might be, as that’s often the impetus to make those things reality, but we have to stay firmly grounded in where we are as well. It’s no use communicating using bleeding edge technology and efforts unless your people are also able and willing to adopt the bleeding edge.  

Underpromise and Overdeliver

The hype for No Man’s Sky has been immense, and the final product was, on some level, doomed not to live up to the inflated expectations. Even if the game had actually delivered on its promises (and to a greater or lesser degree, it did), it would have struggled against the expectations built up by years of promotion ahead of its launch.  Marketing is all well and good, but in the end you have to deliver the product.

Often in church promotions, the temptation is to talk up the event a bit and make sure people want to attend. This works—once. The problem is that when the people attend and discover the event doesn’t live up to the hype, then they don’t return, and they often feel betrayed or misled. We should strive to ensure that our promotional materials reflect reality, or better still, that the actual events we plan for our congregations and communities are able to exceed the promotional speech we bring to them. Always deliver more than expected or required.

Don’t Forget to Include the Game

No Man’s Sky forgets the fundamental rule of game design: It has to be fun. If it’s not fun, no one’s going to play. If you forget to include the game portion of your product, you’re not going to be successful as a video game company. It seems obvious, but it’s an all-too-common problem today. 

The same is true (albeit nuanced very differently) for the church. We hear a lot today about church communications and effective ways to get people to listen, but we have to continue to safeguard the thing that defines us, the Gospel of Christ. You can have the most amazing praise band, a virtuoso organist, or a pastor who could keep a classroom of narcoleptic fifth graders awake, but it won’t matter a bit if you forget and move away from the Gospel. This is core, and we can’t forget that.

Invest the Time to Make It Right

The developers behind No Man’s Sky have an aggressive plan for fixing the technical issues with the game as well as introducing new features that will help realize the initial vision. While one can (and I do) argue that those should have been done before launching, it’s not too late to make it right. 

Churches need to be willing to have the same humility. We need to recognize when we fall short, and then own that reality and do what it takes to make it right. Where is your congregation stepping on toes in your community? How can you reach out to heal the fractured relationships that seem to be a part of every human effort? Invest the time to care for those we hurt (or who hurt us). It’s what we do. It’s who Christ has made us to be.

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Rev. Bill Johnson

Written by Rev. Bill Johnson

Rev. Bill Johnson serves as the Director of Educational Technology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He’s passionate about finding effective ways to share the Gospel with emerging generations and new ways to use technology to form the next generation of servants for the Church. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife and three teenage daughters. Please pray for him.